Thursday, July 22, 2010

On Dead Cats

I wasn’t alive yet, but he had spent years killing snakes in Kansas fields, evading the deathjaws of coyotes, and he was sick. He had feline leukemia, already had two blood transfusions, a stent in his urethra. My mom and dad loved him like you love a cat when you don’t have children, and he was dying. My dad had this buffalo skin that he threw over a chair, furry and smelling of preserved hyde. Tom was sick and dying after years of snake-wrangling, and while he was sleeping on the buffalo chair he released his bladder. His urine burned acidic through the preserved skin and fur, and now the buffalo chair smells like preserved hyde and cat pee. The holes are still there from one time of many that Tom lost control of his bladder when he was very, very sick. His last night my parents put a towel on the bed for him to sleep on so the urine wouldn’t soak into the blankets. He could barely move by then, but he could still wail. My dad had a pistol, and this cat who he loved, he took him outside and shot him right through his kitty brain.

In my childhood home, the animals came to us. The cats came in waves, some of them starving, some lost, some covered in ticks with bellies full of parasites. Some chose us. Others we had dumped upon us by circumstance. We could never let a cat starve. When a new cat showed up, it was my dad’s job to insist that there’s no way we were keeping this one. As my sisters and I stretched out on the floor to rub the foundling’s belly, he would say things like, “Don’t get too comfortable. Your days here are numbered.” He would joke about throwing it out to the coyotes, though there were no coyotes in our part of Iowa. No coyotes, but a large house in the woods away from busy streets, which for a time was a domestic animal’s paradise.


He was my first experience with death as something both permanent and unfair. Death was for ailing great-grandparents, incontinent dogs, and strangers on the news. Smokey had been a stray, and he was black. When giving children the privilege of naming an all-black cat, you can guarantee that they’ll end up naming it something stupid like Smokey. He was another who wasn’t supposed to stay, who my father threatened and rarely petted, but he was with us at least two years, virile and healthy and above all young when Mandi found his body frozen to the deck in the snow. When she told me he was dead, I went into my room and closed the door. I cried and realized that there was no possible way to make this situation better. He was dead forever, and that meant I would never ever see him again, and I couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t dead, because I’ll always know that he died suddenly and unfairly, frozen to the deck. After spending enough time alone, I joined the other mourners, my sisters, who were floating around the window watching my dad pick away at the ice and snow to disengage the corpse from the ground. His body was awry, twisted by sudden and mysterious death, and he didn’t seem like him anymore. We must have buried him. We probably even had a funeral. But all I remember is my dad putting his stiff body into a paper bag head first, and walking away with the cat’s hind legs and tail sticking out of the top. Though the body was obviously in the grips of rigor mortis, his slightly bent tail moved a bit at the tip with my father’s quick steps, and I wanted to stop him, to tell him to wait. Please check him again. He’s moving.


“What a happy cat,” people who didn’t know would say about her, and she was far from a happy cat. They thought she walked around purring all the time. How the constant rattling of her lungs, the choking and coughing and laboring to breathe could sound like happiness was beyond me. Halley was a purebred Siamese. She had come from a breeder who had a room of cages stacked high, wall-to-wall filled with wheezing cats. Later the vet would say that she had the worst case of asthma he had ever seen. He would say that he had never heard such terrible breathing when an animal wasn’t having an attack. We could hear her coming from anywhere in the house. Her crackling breaths announced her presence.

She wasn’t sociable. She didn’t like anyone but my mother, and my mother loved her. We thought it was weird—Halley looked like an alien, with giant eyes and an elongated face, her body scruffy and scrawny from a malnourished kittenhood. She didn’t care for being petted, would dip her back against your hand, but occasionally curl up and sleep in your crotch or on your butt while you were lying down. My mom and Halley had a bond, but for some reason, it fell on me to give her her daily asthma pill. And she was terrible at taking pills. When I became more experienced, I would hold her tightly under one arm with the corresponding hand around her chest, and with the other hand, shove the tiny pill to the back of her throat through the side of her mouth. When she gagged, I’d grab her muzzle and hold it shut while she pawed frantically at my hand, trying to slip away from my grasp. I’d pet her throat and say, “Swallow. Swallow. Swallow.” Eventually she did.

She was six years old, and she’d had two seizures in quick succession. Her breathing was worse than ever, and the vet said she wouldn’t last through Thanksgiving, when we were leaving town. So they shaved her dainty paw and held it as if she were some aristocratic lady about to dance. They offered the needle like a spray of perfume. As the needle slipped into her skin, she struggled, but with the expunging of the syringe’s contents, she went limp. I watched the transition in her eyes, one second wide open and scared, the next wide open and empty. The life had sunk out of her body, seemingly as soon as the syringe emptied. It was quick. The vet and the tech left the room while my mother cried and petted her dead body on the table. She tried to close Halley’s eyes, but they just snapped back open.


Mali was no accident. She was a deliberate acquisition, a purebred Abyssinian with almond eyes and sleek fur, her confirmation resembling a hieroglyph. Everyone liked her because she was beautiful, but I liked to think she didn’t like anyone the way she liked me. I was in middle school when we got her as a crazy kitten, and I made her like people by regularly forcing her to be held and petting her while informing her, “You’re a nice kitty.” As I grew into adolescence, Mali and I were similarly aloof and bitchy unless we were with our people, of course.

Interlude: When I talk to people who don’t like cats, they usually say something about how their dog loves them unconditionally, is at their beck and call, does what they want and will always be affectionate. I like dogs, and uncomplicated love has its perks. But I always say that when an animal has moods and feelings like you do, when they’re selective, it’s different when they choose to bond with you, when you know they wouldn’t just love any asshole on the street. And I think of Mali. She wasn’t terribly friendly, but she loved me. And for some reason, our Japanese exchange student, too.

I was in high school pulling an all-nighter when she came to me for help, but I didn’t realize what was going on. Her sleek fur was ruffled, and she was crying at me, but I was busy, I had college to get into, and I walked back and forth all night, between computer room and living room, my trifold presentation on starvation and drought in the Sahel taking shape with images of hollowed out eyes and alien limbs and floating bits of text. She followed after me meowing and I ignored her.

Within a couple days she wasn’t even moving. I placed her on my bed where she’d always slept, and overnight she expelled foul black liquid in two places on my comforter. I was seventeen and by that point scarcely believed in god, but I decided to use my last ounce of hope to pray that if she were going to die, let her die that night, with me. God said no. We took her to the vet the next day.

Back from school, I heard from my mom that it’s liver failure. We can either go to the vet to take her home, where she’ll likely die (but when?), or go to put her to sleep. I hadn’t made my decision in the car. The vet called my mother’s cell phone to tell us about the fluid collecting in her lungs. I made my decision, and I just wanted to be there so she didn’t die alone in a cage. When we arrived in the waiting room, populated with people and their pets on leashes, a tech sheltered us around the corner from the other patrons and told us quietly that she had just died. What followed was my first experience as a young adult falling apart completely in public. My entire upper body crumpled to my thighs, and I wailed, “no”, over and over again. The tech quickly ushered us into an exam room so we wouldn’t disturb the rest of the customers.

Inconsolable in my chair, they brought her in, wrapped in a blanket, appearing limp and asleep. The vet told us she had died in a tech’s arms, that the cat was so far gone she probably thought it was me. I said nothing, but I was sure it was a lie. She died in a cage, scared to death. The vet continued to talk. I wouldn’t think I’d want to hold her, but I did. The vet talked for what seemed like an hour, and toward the end, my attention was drawn to the cat’s eyelids. One lower lid was stuck overlapping an upper lid, and I noticed the traces of glue. Her jaw was going slack, and I could see that there was something inside, white and plastic, to keep it closed. I looked curiously at their presentation, and that’s when I gave up the cat’s body.

Sammy, Tiger, Luke (a dead dog)

Returning to Iowa after my first year of college, my home had become a different place. It was the first time my parents had lived without children, and the entire living room had been transformed to some kind of dog-sanctuary. The floor was strewn with new plush dog beds, bones, and toys. After plopping down in an overstuffed chair, I suddenly remarked, “Ugh, it’s dirty.”

“That’s Ivy’s chair,” my mom said, referring to our young English setter.

Meanwhile, the cats I grew up with were getting old and requiring increasing care. Sammy, the long-haired Birman, once handsome with a non-matting coat, had become grizzled and decrepit. He was only bones under the tangled fur that came out in clumps, and he spent most of his time hobbling around, bleating aimlessly. On my visit home, I watched as my mom hung a bag of fluids from the ceiling fan, then held Sammy on her lap and slipped the IV under his skin at the scruff of his neck as he squirmed in discomfort.

“We try to do this every day,” she told me.

Within a year, my dad had moved out and all the animal care fell on my mom. The old cats demanded to be fed high calorie wet catfood several times a day, and would only eat on the counter. Since they no longer had the physiques for jumping, they had to be lifted up to eat, then placed on the ground again once they were finished. Meanwhile, lacking the attention they were used to, the dogs were becoming increasingly protective. They travelled in a pack, roaming the grounds, barking and chasing at the slightest provocation. They blocked unknown cars from the driveway, their hackles raised, snarling. They chased bikers. They all took chase if one noticed a stranger too close to our property. They hunted in pack formation, listening for raccoons throughout the night. If one dog gave the signal, they would all clamor outside to surround their prey.

I was living in St. Paul and concentrating on school and my life away while my parents were divorcing and my mom was losing control of the house, the animals. Around the same time, my sister Natalie suffered a manic episode and spent a few days in the psych ward. I tried not to think about it too much in my daily life, catching only glimpses of despair in occasional e-mails and phone calls. That summer I came home for a week, my semiannual visit to face what I took refuge from the rest of the year. I came home to a household that was falling apart, while everyone seemed paralyzed in denial, inaction. The divorce was really happening, it was becoming increasingly obvious that we wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the house, and Natalie had come back from her stint in the psych ward crazier than ever. On top of that, our aging pets were facing a host of illnesses, tumors, weight loss, and when I asked if they’d been to the vet, my mom told me she hadn’t gotten around to it, she had a lot on her plate.

Maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was because at that point I was possibly the least damaged person in my family, but I was determined that I would fix as much as I could in that one week. I made vet appointments for all of the animals, the dogs on one day, the cats on another. Of the dogs, I was most concerned about Luke, the arthritic fourteen-year old English setter. Fatty tumors had been appearing all over his body, but the most troublesome was the one on top of his head. It was crusty, black, and growing, bubbling up pieces of diseased skin that periodically broke open and bled. The other dogs wouldn’t stop licking it, which made it bleed more. More dark, crusty tumors popped up over his eyelids, bleeding into his eyes and obscuring his vision.

My mom helped me the day we took the dogs to the vet. Sliding open the door of the minivan, I pulled Luke’s leash and called him out. He hesitated at the step down from the car, then tried to jump out and collapsed on the ground. I just stood there while my mom wordlessly lifted the eighty pound dog from the ground, as if she did that kind of thing every day.

I was assertive with the vet. I told her that these tumors were bothering him, that they needed to be removed, that we didn’t want to run tests, we just wanted to get rid of the tumors on his head. The vet was reluctant. “He’s very old, are you sure?”

Yes, I’m sure. I didn’t know why him being old mattered. He may be old, but even if removing those tumors improved his quality of life a little, surely it was worth it. We scheduled the appointment for the surgery, which wouldn’t be for months.

Next were the cats.

Let me tell you about Tiger. I found him in our garage on a very cold day after Christmas when I was seven. He was curled up on an old roll of carpet near the garbage bins, meowing a low, deep meow that I would never hear from him again. I picked him up and he instantly curled up in my arms. When I took him inside to show my dad, he gave me a look of disgust and said, “Is it alive?”

He was half-frozen and starving, but I was just a kid and didn’t realize how close to death he probably was. We nursed him back to health, and I named him Tiger because when you give a kid the privilege of naming an orange cat, you can guarantee they’ll name it something stupid like Tiger. He gradually became a robust, happy, affectionate cat who spent most of his time hunting or in the barn. He had a strange, staccato walk because of frostbite on his toes. We thought his scratchy, screen-door meow might have been because of damage the cold had done to his vocal cords. He was my cat, the first stray I had found and brought home.

When I was sixteen he was diagnosed with feline AIDS. The vet suggested we put him down then, but he seemed so happy and healthy. He remained healthy for years after that, even causing us to doubt the diagnosis. His health started failing around the same time as the other geriatric cats. He lost so much weight that when you petted him, you could feel every knob of his vertebrae, jutting hipbones, hollow at the flank. He began walking with his head tilted, his gait always a “pace” in horse terms; stepping simultaneously with both feet one side of his body, then both feet on the other side. I iterated all these details to the vet as Tiger sat on the exam table with his eyes half-closed.

“I can run some tests, but I won’t find out anything good.” She was perplexed that I would even bother to bring this cat in if not to put him to sleep. I petted his skeletal frame, my logic seeming weaker by the second as I said, “I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to make him more comfortable.” She gave me more high-calorie wet catfood.

I gave my mom new instructions about the animals, made sure she remembered the date for Luke’s surgery, and went back to school. It was months later that I got the call--my birthday, actually. Not an unusual time to get a call from my mom. I just wanted to let you know that Luke died. He had the surgery, came home and just went to sleep. He couldn’t handle the anesthesia at his age.

That was why the vet had asked if I was sure I wanted him to get the surgery despite his old age. Because surgery might kill him. It hadn’t occurred to me. I was too busy on my weeklong kick of getting things done, fixing my family within a limited timeframe. Now Luke was dead as a result of my naive proactivity. I had killed my beloved childhood pet.

I got a few phone calls and e-mails throughout the year, my last year of college. Some of them delivering news. Sammy died. Tiger died. I didn’t press for details. I had failed spectacularly in the little action I had taken to help. Moreover, my parents were still divorcing, my mom still couldn’t afford the house, and Natalie was still crazy.


For the first time, the dogs outnumbered the cats, and Patchy was the only first generation cat still living. Natalie had found her as a stray only weeks before I’d found Tiger. She was a muddy tortoiseshell with an overeating problem that stemmed from her days of starvation, and a meow that was both frequent and strident. She had spent all her life as the quintessential Omega cat. The other cats chased her, probably because as soon as she saw them she would hiss and growl, but she had nothing to back up her swagger and always ran. Sammy was the biggest wimp of a cat that we owned, and even he chased her. Even as a decrepit old cat, he hobbled after her with his ears back, meowing menacingly. She had outlived them all, and was becoming more at ease without so many other cats around.

It was Father’s Day, and since I was in town, my mom had invited my dad over to the old house that wouldn’t be ours for much longer. Natalie was pacing. We all pace in my family, but since Natalie got out of the psych ward it seemed she could never stop moving. I sat at the table writing in the card: Happy Father’s Day! I got you this BA in English, which is a pretty crappy present. Sorry about that! My mom was rushing around doing her hosting duties and trying to contain the bitterness that saturated her interactions whenever my dad was around. My dad had just arrived. Mandi wasn’t there.

Mid-pace, Natalie screamed and we looked to the window. I hung back, only catching a glimpse of tortoiseshell fur, mangled and lifeless on the deck. My dad went to her, then my mom. All three went outside and stood around the body. I couldn’t hear them, but I watched them, silent, Natalie’s face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. My dad took her and pressed her into his chest as she cried. The door slid open and my mom came back inside, sighing and muttering about getting the shovel. They stood like that for a few minutes. I could see my dad’s lips moving. After a little longer, my mom returned with a shovel and a cardboard box. She gingerly lifted the cat from the deck and placed her in the box. With a sympathetic pat on the back, she offered Natalie the box. She took it, Dad took the shovel, and they began the procession into the woods. They found a spot in the pet cemetery guarded by the sitting Buddha statue, and my dad began to dig. Natalie watched, holding the box, her shoulders shaking periodically. The hole had to be deep, deep enough that other animals wouldn’t dig it up. As he dug and dug, I could see the sweat pooling through the back of his shirt. Finally, he motioned to Natalie, and she knelt and lowered the box into the ground. He covered it with dirt with the same sweeping, laborious motions, packed it well, and placed a stone over the top. Then they stood, facing the grave, their backs to me. My dad put his arm around Natalie and she leaned her head against his shoulder. I could tell he was talking quietly. I could imagine what he was saying, in his low, soothing voice. She lived a good life. If you hadn’t rescued her from the cold those years ago she never would have made it, never would have gotten to live here with us. She was very old. It’s not your fault.

Inside, we were more shocked than devastated. We knew she was very old, but she didn’t seem to have any particular health problems other than the constant fatty tumors in her sides. She still ate and used her litter box and walked around a little slower than she used to. My mom had last seen her near the area where they found her. All of the dogs had chased her to the railing of the deck and were barking viciously at her. My mom yelled at the dogs but was distracted by something and went away.

We hadn’t known cats to just drop dead, but we hoped that maybe Patchy had been spared the deterioration, the fluids that begin to sludge out of orifices onto inappropriate surfaces, the vet visits with pricks and squeezes. The stains and smells and yowls of a cat that doesn’t understand why it’s hurting. The choice between waiting for nature and ending the pain. Maybe she really had beat it all and been given a quick, painless death.

But this idea never settled with me. We couldn’t say otherwise to Dad, and certainly not to Natalie, but my mom had a theory. “She looked messed up,” my mom said, twisting her face, “Like something had messed with her.” When I asked what she meant, she shook her head and refused to elaborate further. My mom had seen her on the railing with the dogs going crazy barking at her like she was a raccoon or something. She thought that after she left, they had pulled her from the railing and shook her to death.

Cats and dogs had coexisted peacefully in our household for over twenty years. The only time the dogs even got involved with the cats was when breaking up catfights. The Shitzu would yap after the perpetrators to scare them off each other, then choose one cat to chew and snort on the back of their neck as if in an attempt to irritate it to death. Never anything more. Never anything violent. The thought that our dogs had become so wild, so pack-like, that they could have done something like this made me nauseous.

Life had been happening to us all, and we’d been so wrapped up in it that we had neglected the danger that the dogs had become. You couldn’t even blame them, exactly. They had just resorted to their primal instincts, and we had lost control.

We had lost control.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Walking in Minneapolis

The sidewalks aren’t even normal icy, but a thick, bumpy--surprise!--take your feet out from under you and kill you kind of icy. Every day, I walk on these sidewalks, looking down, stepping carefully, thinking, don’t slip, don’t slip, for the love of god, don’t slip. The anxiety goes beyond the natural instinct to avoid injury or humiliation. I don’t have insurance, and the fear always remains that I might slip and break my arm, which would completely ruin me, take every penny I have and leave me in debt to a hospital for who knows how long. But really, I’m one of the lucky uninsured. I’ve thought this through many times. If I break my arm, I can call my dad and see if he has any doctor friends who would set my broken arm pro bono. I bet he’d be able to find someone, but I’d have to go to Iowa to do it. Since I doubt I could drive five hours with a broken arm, Colin would have to take me, which means we’d have to wait until the weekend when he’s not working to go. With each mindful step, I think about this scenario, the phone call to my dad, the drive home with a broken arm, wondering how I would sleep or deal with the pain until the weekend. Halfway through crossing the street, I realize I hadn’t checked to see if there were any cars coming, and I defiantly think, Let the cars hit me, I don’t even care. Then I remember that getting hit by a car might not kill me, and I take it back. Especially if I’m hurt badly enough to be unconscious and unable to tell them not to call an ambulance. I have to stay alert, stay vigilant, keep walking with trepidation. Don’t slip, don’t slip.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Giving up the Dream

I wrote this about four years ago, when I was a senior in college. I found it today when I was looking through my old documents for papers to give my professor who's writing my recommendation to law school. I don't know how I feel about law school. I'm just trying to find a paying career, my niche, something that I'd be good at and would satisfy me. It often comes back to writing, which goes back to my lack of discipline, lack of talent, lack of propulsion. Then it cycles through again--teacher, lawyer, writer. Anyway, when I wrote this I had recently been destroyed by writer's workshops. Funny, because it still rings true today.

My father creates beautiful works of art. He’s done this since he was a small child. His mother, his classmates, teachers, everyone was enamored with his skill. They were in awe of the maturity of his eye, his attention to detail and precision in every deliberate stroke of the pencil or brush. He was a wonderful artist, and his own worst critic. This wasn’t difficult, considering he only received glowing praise from others. I sometimes wonder what his self-criticism sounded like. I now have little sympathy for exceedingly talented people who are harder on themselves than anyone else. Deep down they know they’re incredibly talented. They know they’re better than everyone around them, but are they better than everyone in the world? In history? Such thoughts are the source of torment for them. I used to be one of these people. Now I don’t have the liberty. Thinking back on the intense self-scrutiny I underwent, it all seems weak. It’s better to be the tormented genius than the hack who knows she’s got nothing to offer. My fragile ego relied on the fact that no one ever criticized my writing. When they started doing just this, I was crushed. I realized that my work is no more special than anyone else’s, that I would not have to worry about my legacy in history when I was inferior to half of my writing class.

My father never had anyone tell him that he was a bad artist. I asked him, and he said that people were always quite impressed with him, though he wished they would be more helpful. This infuriated me. It’s not fair that one can be in any sort of subjective, creative field and avoid the scathing, heart-wrenching criticism from peers and professors. I’ve had my share plus some. I’ve had others tear my writing apart just for fun. Perhaps if my father had remained in this subjective, creative field, he would have got his. But he didn’t. Vietnam came rolling by along with his lottery number, announcing his fate: if he chose to go to art school, he would go to war. Thus, he changed his path to medical school. He didn’t like the direction the art world was going, anyway.

My father creates beautiful incisions in people’s flesh. He sends balloons slithering gracefully through their arteries, pushing away blood clots that would cause ugly bouts of gangrene. My father is an amazing doctor. Everyone says so. But will the legacy of his art outlive him? No. He no longer produces art. Once, when I was in high school, I came home to my father and his friend standing in the kitchen, and a large sheet of paper that seemed to have been torn from some larger roll was taped to the microwave. It had a drawing on it, and my dad’s friend, Dennis, asked me what I thought of it. I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not very good.”

Dennis asked me to explain myself. It seemed a little haphazard and messy. It was a picture of the voluptuous body of a woman lying in a bed of plants, with a large sunflower sprouting from her neck in the place of a head. There was a sinister looking giant insect looking at it hungrily, attempting to drink the nectar from this flower. I explained that it was ripping off the style of Robert Crumb, what with replacing women’s heads with other objects, and that the artist obviously had issues with women. I saw my dad flinch at this, and I noticed his signature in lower right corner of the piece. I immediately felt embarrassed. I tried to explain that I thought this was a genuine piece of art that Dennis had purchased from an accredited artist, and it lacked professionalism, but I kept digging myself deeper into a hole. I didn’t know at the time that this was something he had drawn in five minutes with a set of crayons. I still become flushed with regret when I think about this incident, though logically I try to convince myself that I was in the right. I had given him the first criticism he had ever received, and he had it coming.

Not long ago my father entered a contest in which one painted anything they wanted on a two by two board. He hadn’t painted in thirty years, but he completed his work and brought it to the dining room to show me while I was visiting home. It depicted an Aztec warrior entangled in combat with a velociraptor. My throat tightened as I studied it. It was perfect. The colors, the shadow, the capturing of action. He hadn’t touched a paintbrush in three decades, and was still capable of creating something so flawless. I wanted to sob for two souls lost—his, such a great, inexhaustible talent that no one will ever know, and mine. My art was clouded with insecurity, rusty from lack of use, stunted in growth. I was a dodo compared to my father’s soaring eagle, but neither of us would live the dreams we had once been so sure would be our destiny.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Who needs balanced journalism? EVERYONE.

This clip is the latest thing that’s tapped into the same rage I’ve been feeling ever since Fox started advertising its own tea-bagging protests.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

I know it's supposed to be funny, but it left me feeling infuriated. I have this crazy idea that news networks should report on news, not create it. It bothers me enough how much power mainstream media has to frame and oversimplify issues, but using a 24 hour “news” network as a platform to promote anti-government protests, or really protests of any kind, is reprehensible. Fox, please take “news” out of your title if you would rather be a 24 hour ideological network. Free speech allows you to have a network to promote your ideology, but masquerading under the guise of “fair and balanced” news is just downright deceptive.

I am so surprised by the even tone I’ve been able to adopt so far, because this is one of those issues that automatically makes my heart pound, my cheeks become hot, and I unleash the foulest combination of swears I can think of. Seventy-five thousand people showed up to the teabagger protests in DC on 9/12. I suppose that’s a lot, but I’m not terribly impressed. You see, on January 18, 2003, I went to an anti-war protest in DC which hardly anyone heard about, and we had 200,000 people. The same day, San Francisco had 150,000 people. Cities across the country participated with their own events, and I can’t find much information on it. This is just from my memory, but I believe the protest in Minneapolis had 50,000 people, and that’s in January when it is really fucking cold. That weekend there were coordinated protests in 25 countries across the world. And you know how all these people got together? E-mail campaigns and word of mouth. We didn’t have the country’s most-viewed 24 hour news network repeatedly telling us about these protests, hosting gatherings in cities across the country, singing the praises of being a good, patriotic American and protesting our administration. We just had e-mail, and in regards to turnout, we were a hell of a lot more successful. Not only that, but the crowd truly was a diverse representation of Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds, from priests to anarchists, all marching together to oppose a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Afterwards, I was eager to read all the coverage of the protests, but I was disappointed. The DC local news covered it the most, and after that I didn’t see a single mainstream network mention it. They must have at least a bit, but I never caught it, even though I was looking. There were a few blurbs online. If I had access to LexisNexis, I’m sure I could find more, but this is the most comprehensive article I could find. When I told people about what I’d been doing that weekend, aside from the people who were on the same mailing lists as me, nobody was even aware of the protests going on, not even the ones in their own cities. Not only that, but we failed. Despite the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans showing their opposition, the administration told us to fuck off and started the war in about three months.

I remember when I began my anti-war activity as a freshman in college, I was all fired up with civic dissidence. I eventually became jaded. I remember talking to my mom, who had gone to anti-war protests in the sixties. “They figured out how to handle us,” I said, “They just don’t report on us.” The time leading up to the Iraq war was a horrible period in journalism. The mainstream media constructed a false consensus, was too spineless to ask the tough questions, and we went to war. In a few years, things got a little better. I lived in Japan for the end of the Bush administration, and missed a lot of the changing political climate. When I see archival footage of O’Reilly calling anti-war protestors “loons” mashed up with him talking about how awesome and patriotic the teabaggers are, my first reaction isn’t so much “What hypocrisy!” as “They started covering the anti-war protests?” But Fox News providing extensive coverage to the measly protests that it organizes itself is one thing that really makes the bile rise in my throat. Perhaps because it reminds me of how dependent civic movements are on the media, and how the media can be really fucking dishonest about it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I'm disturbed.

After following one of those search engine rabbit tunnels, I ended up inadvertently discovering Japanese Gravure idols (グラビアアイドル). The term "Gravure Idol" refers to young female models from particular talent agencies who generally appear in men's magazines and "Idol" DVDs that feature them being pretty and sexy in various situations and outfits. The term "gravure" comes from "rotogravure", the printing press used to develop glossy magazines. While the work may be risque or suggestive, (common costumes are swimwear, lingerie, and school uniforms) there is no nudity involved for a gravure idol, though this type of modeling is often viewed as a stepping stone. It could potentially lead to mainstream work as a TV presenter, singer, or actress, or it could lead to work as a nude model or porn actress. There's a pretty high turnover rate, though, with many models lasting less than a year when their demand wanes. While the function of a regular model is to anonymously sell a product, the image of a gravure idol is connected to her identity--her name, her age, and often her hobbies and skills. Basically, she is the product, tied up in a marketable, sexy package. I think it's comparable to swimsuit or lingerie models of the nineties, whose posters were commonplace in frat-house bathrooms in the US.

The idea of a Gravure Idol is nothing too special--just young women capitalizing on their sexuality as a means to success. Lots of singers and actresses start out as models. It wasn't until I found out the age range of these models, whose main purpose is to market themselves in men's magazines, that I worked up my ire. The youngest working Gravure Idol was nine years old in 2006. NINE. From what I'd seen of the work of other Gravure Idols, this didn't even seem imaginable. Gravure Idols clutch their naked breasts in bubble baths, or stroke themselves in non-nude erotica videos. Even though a strong facet of mainstream sexuality in Japan is that of the infantilized female, surely there would be public outcry if a nine-year-old was doing this. So I looked her up.

I was a little nervous about what I might find through my internet search, and if it would draw the FBI to my computer. Interestingly, before I found little Mizuki, I found another pre-teen idol, eleven-year-old Saaya. The images of Saaya I saw were gratuitous. She had the fresh young face of a pre-teen and huge breasts. She was in a bikini, often leaning over. The source websites made mention of how the pictures, taken in 2005, were of an eleven-year-old, but that didn't stop the user comments of "OMG she is SO HAWT i would totes do her". She was a pretty child in possession of an early (and in Japan, somewhat rare) endowment, and so her parents chose to capitalize on her in this way. That is fucked up. If you're interested, here's an article about how we can all find common ground in agreeing about the hotness of a busty eleven-year-old.

What I had seen of Saaya made me more nervous of what I might see of nine-year-old Mizuki. But when I did find her, she was the opposite of what Saaya had led me to expect. She looked like a completely normal third-grader, with a striking resemblance to one of the third graders I used to teach. In most of her pictures she looked like a regular kid having fun, and in general, a lot of the photos didn't look too different from what you see of child models anywhere. At first I was relieved, then I descended into a sort of contemplative melancholy. The difference between Mizuki and other child models is that Mizuki's photos are intended to sell herself, and in a medium that has been previously devoted to wank-material, no less. Her photo books were selling well (in 2006, the time of all the MIzuki press) and the description on the website talks about her sweet look and tells a story about her auditioning for the school swim team, as it shows a picture of her in her school swimming suit. It tells about the other outfits she appears in: her school uniform, her gym clothes, her street clothes, a bikini, a maid uniform, a nurse uniform. I didn't see any of the maid or nurse pictures, but the ones I see tend to be the epitome of a regular little girl doing regular little girl things, which pretty much translates to pedophile fodder. The few instances where her poses appear suggestive, it's clearly unintentional on her part, as if the photographer caught her at an off-moment and used it. I don't know if this makes it better or worse than Saaya.

I think of Chinatsu, an eleven-year-old girl who I taught for just a few months. When she first joined my class, Sayaka basically threw her in against her will. She was new to our cram school, and Sayaka warned me about her. She is very, very low-level, she is shy, she has a bad attitude, and so on. When I met her, she was wearing fashionable street clothes while all the other kids were still in their uniforms, and she had a hardened, fuck-off look on her face. When Sayaka informed her she would be joining the English class, her hard expression gave way to a look of momentary panic as she tried to refuse, but Sayaka just led her to my table where she folded her arms and sat in silence. As per the warnings, I was gentle with her and heaped plenty of praise on her efforts in order to build her confidence. When I complimented her, told her she did a good job, that she was catching up quickly (which she was), she smiled and seemed genuinely delighted that she was doing well. Though she was reserved, I saw little of the girl Sayaka had warned me about, and one day I asked her about it. Sayaka told me that Chinatsu struggled in school, and compared her to two other students of her age, who always seemed to me to be not-terribly bright. "School is difficult, but they are good girls," she said. "Chinatsu is... sometimes she is late to class, she is rude to teacher."

Chinatsu seemed fairly bright to me, but she was "not a good girl". Here's the thing. She was very tall for her age, and in possession of a woman's body. At eleven years old, Colin saw her in her street clothes and asked me if she was a high school student. She was already troubled, and I worried about what might happen to her, what might have already happened. Just because she looked grown-up didn't mean she was prepared for everything that went along with it. I remember instances of her child-like delight--on Halloween, when we were trick-or-treating and she didn't have a costume so I gave her my extra cat-ears, and when I gave her my contact information my last day at the school and she gleefully added another entry into her cellphone. I heard from her once since coming back, a mass text from her cell-phone mail about a change of address, with lots of stars and emoticons.

I worried similarly about a ten-year-old girl I worked with this summer, in Minneapolis. She too was very tall for her age, pretty, and looked much older than a kid who had just finished the fourth grade. She was also troubled, and I was very acquainted with her stank attitude, which earned her the nickname "Miss Stankypants". She was already wrapped up in fashion and pop-culture, and swiped her mother's platforms to practice her strut. She play-acted the sex-kitten mannerisms she saw on TV, which isn't uncommon for girls that age, but she was still a kid. I don't think there's anything wrong with girls trying to figure out their sexuality or how they project it, because that's something we all do on the path to womanhood. It's the predators who need to change. Traditionally, the burden has fallen on women to take all the responsibility to prevent their victimization--watch the signals you're sending, watch your drink, stay with your girlfriends, and by all means do not be a slut. All the while, boys will be boys. Men need to be educated alongside women about combating this "boys will be boys" culture. One step might be to stop publicly sexualizing teens and pre-teens just because they look older than they are, because having boobs does not constitute an invitation. Miss Stankypants got far less stank by the end of the summer, and at times was a really sweet kid. I still worry about her, because so few of us make it to womanhood unscathed, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

As for our pre-teen idols, Saaya is fifteen now and continues to dabble in music and voiceover work, and I haven't found any new information about Mizuki. I would hope that would mean she was out of the business, but if her parents were willing to offer her up to a medium notorious for producing stroke material, I suspect it's not for lack of trying. Mizuki and Saaya represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of representing pre-teens, but it's adults who have perverted their images. When I was about four and my sisters were six, one of our favorite videotapes was Madonna's live concert in Tokyo. We watched it over and over again, and whenever "Material Girl" started playing, we put on our Easter dresses (because they looked the most like Madonna's poofy, lacy costume) and stood on stools dancing. My parents didn't stop us from singing along to the risque lyrics we didn't understand, didn't tell us to get off those stools and quit aping Madonna's sexy dance moves, didn't scold us for being dirty and wrong for enjoying the then-controversial singer. For that, I'm grateful. They also didn't videotape us on those stools and try to sell it. For that, I'm very grateful.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fallback Female Labor: Childcare and Sex Work (Part 2)

Note: Parts of this may look familiar. That's because parts of it have been lifted from this earlier post.

I had only been in Japan a few days and I was looking for work. I found myself for the first time at Suisho, a local bar that would become a regular haunt, sharing my apprehension over drinks with my boyfriend, Colin, and Mark, the longtime resident foreigner. The bar shared a kitchen with the next-door establishment called Pub Tiffany, a discreet, windowless building. Pub Tiffany was a hostess bar, a male-only club that charges an exorbitant cover charge for entry. In general, hostess bars are like this: upon entry, the men pick a girl from a lineup of hostesses to be their paid companionship for the evening. Hostesses sit with their patrons, pour them drinks, light their cigarettes, listen to their stories about their stupid wives and pretend like they’re the most interesting, charming men in the world. The girls push the drinks, the men pay for the girls’ drinks too and the bar makes money. After closing time, the girls often go out with their patrons, which may or may not involve sex. That’s their choice. One hopes.

Anyway, since Suisho and Pub Tiffany shared a kitchen, the proprietor of the hostess bar would periodically dart through to pick up orders. He was a middle-aged man who nearly always wore suitpants and vests, and looked exactly like the type of person to be running a hostess bar. I wish I had learned his name, but since I didn’t, I’ll refer to him as Suitpants-san. So Suitpants-san knew Mark, and stopped over to chat with all of us, speaking through Mark who at the time was far more fluent than Colin or myself. Through Mark, he casually offered me a job. At the time I laughed, but I briefly considered it, in my job-panicked mind. Within a couple weeks, I’d snatched up the first teaching job I could find, and didn’t think about anything else until it all started falling apart.

My boss always reminded me how lucky I was that she was sponsoring my visa, that there would have been no other place for me to teach English in such a rural area, that she was doing me a huge favor. I was paid cash under the table, far less than the going-rate for a native speaker, and I should have just been happy to be able to stay in the country, according to her. It’s true the company was struggling, but it was a sinking ship I probably never should have climbed aboard. I loved my students, but it only took a few weeks for me to begin feeling frustrated with my lack of knowledge and control over my schedule, the surprise classes, the office hierarchy. There was the manipulation, the guilt-trips, and the occasional devastating acts of kindness that made it all the more complicated to consider leaving. There was nowhere else that would sponsor my visa, Yoshiko would tell me, not in the inaka. Meanwhile, on cold nights out I walked down streets with friends and we would pass one hostess club after another—the larger places had girls standing just outside in shifts as a display of merchandise to lure men inside. They stood there with their usually dyed and inflated hair, shivering and dressed like they were attending a ghetto prom.

While there’s nothing illegal about working as a hostess, it still falls under the category of mizushobai, literally “water trade”, or sex work. Of course there’s a stigma attached to it. These joints are known for some shifty business, and it’s not uncommon for the hostesses to be Filipino girls or Eastern Europeans working illegally. In bigger cities, there are international hostess clubs that feature predominantly white or Filipino women. I remember passing by one in Fukuoka that had a group photo out front of a mixture of Southeast Asian women in traditional clothing and what appeared to be average to vaguely attractive Eastern European women dressed in the usual tacky prom dress fare, many with dirty-blond hair, large noses and wide-set eyes. Must have been exotic to the Japanese guys.

When we started experiencing white girl sightings in our own middle-of-nowhere, wasteland of rice paddies and onions town, I became extraordinarily curious about Pub Tiffany. Mark had only been in once, and said that it wasn’t worth it. There was a 4,000 yen cover charge (about forty bucks), plus you have to pay for all the drinks after that. At one point we heard from Suitpants-san that there were four Romanian girls working there. Colin and Mark had met one of them at Suisho after hours, when I wasn’t with them. That girl didn’t last long. Apparently, she called Mark not long after that because she needed help finding somewhere to buy a cheap alarm clock. Mark drove her to Trial, a Wal-mart type store in a nearby town, then returned her home. After a few hours, he received a call from Suitpants-san, delicately explaining that the girls cannot be seen out in public with him, because it’s intimidating to the customers and affects the girl’s reputation. Spending time outside of work with customers is a major part of being a hostess, so I wonder if it was more objectionable that Mark wasn’t a customer, or that he was a large, foreign guy.

Still, I was determined to get in somehow. Whenever we were at Suisho and saw Suitpants-san pass through, Mark would drop hints in Japanese, gesturing to me, “[She’s very interested in seeing the club.]” But the answer was always the same, delivered with a raised eyebrow: “[Hmm, she should work there.]”

Things continued to deteriorate at work, and it was only the students that kept me from losing it completely. Yoshiko had put me in a position where I felt constantly indebted to her, thus I could never refuse anything she asked of me. I had no personal space, no contract, no boundaries—I was on call at all times, and in a constant state of anxiety. I usually worked at night, but my sleep could be cut four hours short if she decided to call me in for any reason. She insisted that there was nowhere else I could find visa sponsorship, but what about those girls at Pub Tiffany? It was harder to get away with working illegally in the countryside due to increased visibility. My own visa listed me not as an instructor, but as an “international specialist in humanities”. Maybe they had strange visas as well, like entertainer’s visas or working holiday visas.

I was frustrated with my company, but the hostess club was always there. It was mysterious though, open to us only if we wanted to pay or work. Talking to Mark, Suitpants-san once said tantalizingly, “[You should come in. We’ve got Filipinas,]” The Japanese view of Filipino people is comparable to the American view of Mexicans, so I asked Mark why this would be a selling point. He told me that while Japanese hostesses are more likely to have a strict view of their working hours, Filipinas tend to foster relationships outside of work, exchanging texts and keeping up a rapport.

I straddled a strange position, wondering who I was in relation to the foreign hostesses in my town. We all worked nights, and we worked under perhaps less than legal circumstances. We didn’t have the benefit of a contract or a larger built-in network to assist in our transition to life in Japan or mediate any grievances. As sex workers, hostesses are more vulnerable to assault. When she is also a foreigner working illegally, she has no legal recourse. I began reading stories on the internet about hostesses being turned away by the police, about non-Japanese Asian women disappearing as if they had never existed. At the same time I was contemplating the dangers of being a hostess, a young British teacher in Tokyo was murdered while giving a private lesson at a student’s home. Most of my job involved giving private lessons at students’ homes.

I wasn’t actually too worried about getting raped or murdered, as a hostess or a teacher. It was rather the implications of these crimes that worried me—that as foreign women, regardless of our profession, we were being fetishized the same way, we were feeding the same unseemly pathology. It’s undeniable that the function of some foreign teachers is just a step above eye candy. Maybe we weren’t so different after all.

In times of increasing frustration, I began weighing the pros and cons of taking Suitpants-san up on his offer.

Pro: I’d be paid to drink and flirt. I like drinking and hanging out with old guys, I think. I’d just had a very nice conversation with an old man about Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I’d probably make more money than as a teacher, anyway.

Pro: I’d get to practice my Japanese. As an English teacher living with my American boyfriend, I didn’t get much chance to learn Japanese beyond the basic communication I used in my daily life.

Pro: Great source of material for later writing.

Con: Expectations to meet with clients outside of work. One major way that these places make money is that they arrange “dates” between the clients and girls before work. The clients pay a fee and are allowed to take the girls out to dinner, then drop them off at the club before their shift. Girls are pressured to pick up as many of these “dates” as possible, and could be let go for failing to do so.

Con: I’d already had negative experiences with Japanese work-hierarchy and arbitrary rules, and I certainly didn’t want to experience what that might look like in mizushobai. Also, I had a hard enough time making friends with Japanese girls, and I didn’t want to see what ugliness could potentially emerge if I were actually competing with them.

Con: I didn’t even like being a cocktail waitress! What made me think I’d be that much more comfortable pretending to like and stroking the egos of old men who could potentially be gross, disrespectful, or racist?

Con: Probably not a good idea for my burgeoning alcohol problem. The excessive consumption of alcohol is actually a common job hazard for hostesses. Since it’s their job to push drinks, they don’t exactly have the agency to say no when drinks are offered to them.

Con: I’m living with my American boyfriend and he won’t let me.

I had to respect Colin’s wishes. That was the right thing to do, and that should have been the end of it. Still, I found myself resenting the fact that I was unable to go objectify myself if I felt like it. What if I wanted to debase myself, have a horrible, traumatic experience, make some money and fuck myself up? Maybe I wanted to disengage further from my body, and put a price tag on my smiles and conversation along with it.

I didn’t become a hostess, and had no choice but to avert disaster. Though I’d already made my decision, in actuality, the idea didn’t die in my mind until I realized that I didn’t own any nice dresses, and there was nowhere I could buy any that would fit. My resolution didn’t, however, kill my curiosity, and one night I finally did see the inside of Pub Tiffany.

My friend Grace was visiting from Chicago, and we’d spent the week doing the standard Kyushu tour. We were finally finishing things off with a local bar crawl of sorts, and we found ourselves highly intoxicated at Suisho. I had already gotten Grace interested in hostesses, and she was eager for a way into Pub Tiffany as well. As soon as we saw Suitpants-san pop in from his club to use the kitchen, we flagged him down: “[She’s interested in being a hostess! Can she look around your club?]” Suitpants-san agreed, but told us we had to wait until the customers left. We continued to drink, and in time Suitpants-san led myself, Mark, and Grace through the back entrance of Pub Tiffany. We expected the customers to be gone, but the place was devoid of any indication that people had just been drinking and carousing there. It was spotless, with low lights and plush seating, carpeting, far more luxurious than the gritty bar next door. It was completely vacant besides Suitpants-san and the middle-aged woman at the bar, who was the resident Mama-san. No hostess bar is complete without a Mama-san, an older woman who wrangles the girls and keeps up a platonic rapport with the clientele. Suitpants introduced the Mama-san, who seemed less than thrilled to see us. What came next was essentially a job interview. They would ask questions, and we would either answer for Grace or translate them for her. I remember Mark asking if they had any foreigners working at the bar. “Ima, imasen,” Mama-san replied. There aren’t any now. Mark chatted with them about the Romanian girls, sympathizing with them about how the situation had been taihen (difficult). Suitpants was friendly and talkative, but Mama-san seemed reticent, cautious. At one point she emphasized that the girls must do things like sing karaoke with the customers. She said it as if it were something she expected to be a problem for foreigners, as if she’d experienced issues with it before. I translated this to Grace, and she slurred, “I love to sing karaoke. Tell them that.” I did. Grace added, “Tell them I have a bar in Chicago, too.” When they asked what kind of visa she had, we told them it was a tourist visa. They exchanged a look of ambiguous meaning. Before we left, they told Grace to come back tomorrow, during business hours. It wasn’t until we were walking home that I realized Grace had no idea what had just happened. Through all of the arrangements Mark and I had made in Japanese, we neglected to tell her that we had offered her up for employment.

When I returned from Japan, I applied for a number of jobs, but the one that panned out was as a children’s literacy instructor at a social services agency. I enjoyed my work there for a year, but felt the need to move on, to move away from elementary education and childcare before it was too late to try anything else. Professionally, all I’ve been able to experience is elementary education, and it’s never been what I’ve intended to do. In some ways, I feel like it’s been forced on me, but after three years, it’s becoming me too. I would say that I’m versatile, but maybe I’m malleable; professionally, morally, in my personality, my selfhood. I came back from Japan a teacher. I can rattle off lesson plans, I can manage a classroom, I use a particular voice and have specific systems for dealing with behavior issues. After a year at the social services agency, I discovered that I’m actually a literacy instructor too, able to effortlessly follow a set curriculum and make adjustments when necessary, chart progress, speak cogently about LDs and IEPs. It’s shocking that after three years, I essentially became something that I thought I wasn’t. I’ve discovered that I’m actually very good with children, and not everybody who works with them is. Although I feel like I’ve fallen into this line of work somewhat against my will, it’s quite lucky that I’m really, really good at it. But just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it, and I desperately feel like I need a change, since teaching is practically all I’ve known. Maybe I’m better suited for something else and I don’t even know it, but the universe never gives me the chance to find out. I’ve been trying to find work in non-elementary education jobs in social services and nonprofits, only to get shut down every single time. And every new opportunity to appear is further down the path of educating children.

This brings me to my final point: that a young woman with little more to show than a BA in English is essentially worthless, except in the areas of childcare and sex work. Working with children is incredibly important, but it isn’t for everyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be the default job for people who can’t do anything else. And sex work—well, I once read something about sex work, and I wish I could cite the source, but for the life of me I can’t remember where it’s from. Anyway, I read that the increasing problem of sex work is not that it’s victimizing poor and disenfranchised women, but that it’s increasingly attracting educated, middle class women. The reason that’s a problem is that it’s not sustainable work—a woman can spend her youth as a sex worker, but there’s a shelf life, and once it’s up, she’s in her mid-thirties with no career experience, and it’s incredibly difficult to start on a new path. Thus, the world misses out on many potential non-sex-work-related contributions of educated women. Women, as a population, are proportionately far more educated than men, but that isn’t reflected in their income or career advancement. I don’t hold it against a woman with an advanced degree who chooses a career in sex work. I do, however, hold it against society when sex work is the most viable option for a woman with an advanced degree.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fallback Female Labor: Childcare and Sex Work (Part 1)

It’s never been easy for me to find a job. Not even as a teenager, not even when I’ve sought work far below my qualifications. This has always been a combination of circumstance—a particular economic climate, for example—and the fact that while I’m polite and force myself to smile and make eye contact, I’m actually extremely shy and inept at schmoozing and making potential employers like me. I’d love a job that involved me using my brain and talent toward something I’m passionate about, but at every turn, the universe has told me no. I remember there was a time that I was resistant to anything that involved working with children, and yet here I am, having spent the past three years working in some form of elementary education. How did I get here? Desperate circumstances.

It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I needed work badly. I had tried the regular route of countless restaurants, bookstores, and retail chains to no avail, and a break suddenly came when a family friend told me about an opening at the daycare facility for which she worked. Spending a summer changing diapers was far from the glamorous summer I had imagined wearing an OfficeMax polo, but it was a last resort. And contrary to all those waitressing and cashier jobs, this job in which I was responsible for the wellbeing of young children was easy to get. I remember filling out the emergency contact info and W2s alongside the middle-aged woman who had been hired at the same time as me. I saw the woman struggling to fill out her forms, then suddenly her pencil stopped and her hand went to her pained forehead. Our employer asked her what was wrong, and she explained she was having trouble answering the question about her preferred hospital of care: “I wrote ‘I prefer St. Luke’s but’ and I just don’t know how to finish it. Mostly I don’t talk in nothing bigger than three letter words.”

“Three letters?” I remember thinking. With the exception of a few college girls who went to the U of I, the entire place was a ghetto of uneducated, low-skilled female workers. I avoided mentioning the selective liberal arts college I was attending in the fall, and simply said that I was going to school in Minnesota. That was enough for my privilege to stand out. One of my co-workers was a girl my age who hated my guts. She was regularly chatty and deferential to the two older women in our room of one to two year olds, but spoke to me almost exclusively in cold stares and curt admonishments since she was slightly senior. Early in my employment, I was trying to be nice and get to know her, and I asked her the default question I had learned to ask people my age: “Are you going to school somewhere?” She quickly snapped, “I’m taking a break.” I later learned that she worked fulltime at the daycare five days a week, and spent the weekend working at a grocery store. I was temporary, coasting along on 3/4 time before going on to college where I’d receive much more financial support than she ever did, and this must have been infuriating to her. I’ve since learned that it’s a luxury of a privileged existence to assume that being polite and always fulfilling your responsibilities in the workplace will prevent people from hating you just for being who you are.

At the daycare, we spent most of the day sitting on the floor, but left completely exhausted. At night I worried myself sick about what would become of the kids, and was glad to see them in the morning. At the time, those kids were the most important, most stimulating thing in my life—as a result, I was lonely, sad, and under-stimulated. I felt trapped by this traditional feminine role that had consumed so much of me. In my job, I was little more than a body. The way they hired at that daycare, it was a job almost anyone could do. You only needed to fill the correct ratio of adult bodies to children. Suddenly, my body became a jungle gym for toddlers. I was eighteen years old, had never had a boyfriend, and came from a family and circle of friends that wasn’t much for physical contact. Sure, we’d hug on special occasions, but I had never experienced close and persistent physical contact until I worked at the daycare. Without hesitation, toddlers were climbing into my lap, they were asking to be carried around, they were sneezing on my face, I was wiping up vomit and blood, and several times a day up to my elbows in shit. For a period of time, it was overwhelming, this lack of boundaries for my body. Ultimately, I know it was good for me, because bodies are not sacred, and the experience certainly helped demystify them.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I found myself in another difficult situation when seeking employment. I would only be in Iowa for four months before returning to Minnesota, and no one wants to hire anyone just for the summer. By the time I interviewed to be a cocktail waitress at that cheesy dive, I had already been rejected a few times and had gotten lazy with my interview prep. I’d left my hair down, put on a shirt that I wasn’t entirely sure was work appropriate, and decided not to tone down my winged eyeliner. I was interviewed by a man in a string tie who barely glanced at my application before telling me I was “just right for the job, kiddo.” When I met the other cocktails, I found myself the sole brunette in a group of bubbly girls who spoke in countrified accents and called everyone “hun”.

Cocktailing wasn’t sex work, but it was a job that I had gotten entirely on the basis of being young, female, and in possession of T and A. I was little more than a body that brought drinks and flirted, a shell that said “y’all” and “hun” and giggled at sexual harassment by customers because the harassers were always the best tippers. When I passed by mirrors I didn’t recognize myself. In time I discovered that at this place, the supervisors and clientele were equally abusive, but I sucked it up for the paycheck and tips, keeping a grim smile fixed on my face and saving my tears for the drive home. I had lowered the boundaries of my body, what it was used for, what it had meant to me, and it became little more than an ornamental vehicle for cash-money.

A few years later, when I was looking for teaching jobs in Japan, I remember feeling a deep resistance to teaching any age group younger than high school. When I was filling out my JET application, I even considered only selecting that I was interested in a high school placement. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I was rejected from JET anyway. Once I was in Japan, I discovered that the English market was getting younger and younger, with the main needs being for children’s teachers. When I did find a job with a small, private cram school, the ages of my students ranged from babies in diapers to seventy-year-olds, with the vast majority being elementary school students. Once again, through no intention of my own, I’d become mother goose, diligently teaching English while averting tantrums and dealing with bathroom emergencies.

Here’s the thing about teaching English in Japan: if you’re a native speaker with a BA, you can do it. You’re not hired for any special talents beyond what you were born into. Never mind that teaching in itself is a talent, chances are you won’t be doing a whole lot of that anyway. The main position for foreigners is as an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher, which means that you work in a school do whatever the real Japanese English teacher tells you to. You likely have little input on the English curriculum, and won’t even necessarily make your own lesson plans. Often, the main function of the ALT is outside of the classroom, hanging out with the kids and being foreign to “promote intercultural exchange”. Within the school, your position is somewhere between a teacher and a student. Part of the reason why JET consistently hires kids fresh out of college with no experience is that they’re easier to control, and generally don’t challenge the authority of the “real” teachers.

The other common route for teaching in Japan is through conversation schools. Children through adults can pay money for a set number of classes with a native speaker, who teaches from the uniform curriculum and lesson plans set up by corporate headquarters or whatever. There’s also a fair amount of sales involved for said native speaker, who tries to get the students to pay for as many textbooks and CDs as possible, while simultaneously convincing them to sign up for more classes. My job was a little different than either of those in that I was given free rein over my small classes and devised my own lesson plans, mostly without the aid of a textbook. With only a TEFL certificate under my belt, I was hardly qualified to do this, but I ended up learning quite a bit on the job. My boss didn’t seem to understand or appreciate the amount of work that went into it, and frequently threw surprise classes at me at the last minute (bikkuri jugyo, I called them). She seemed to believe that English lessons just flew out of my butt, since I’m a native speaker.

These two and a half avenues of teaching English have one thing in common: you aren’t hired for what you can do, but for who you are. You’re hired because you’re foreign, hopefully with stereotypically foreign features, hopefully attractive and a certain kind of outgoing that allows you to set your pride aside and make a fool out of yourself on a regular basis. Some foreign teachers are amazing at their jobs, and some should probably never be allowed near children, but for the most part, to their employers, they’re equally interchangeable. I know that in my company, the fact that there was a single foreigner on staff was flaunted in newsletters and advertisements as if it granted them that much more credibility.

Once a week, I spent the mornings teaching classes at a daycare, or hoikuen. I knew that the position of teachers is perhaps the most exalted and highly regarded profession in Japan. I know we say this in America too, but in Japan children are regarded as incredibly precious, and childhood is widely celebrated. We may have these theories in America, but it’s really in practice in Japan. Until a child hits junior high school, often their entire household revolves around them. These different views of childhood and teachers was evidenced in the stark contrast between my experiences at an American daycare and a Japanese daycare. During their time at the daycare, from early in the morning until late in the evening, the kids, who were all between infants and six years of age, followed a strict regime comprised of academics, social development, and playing. The staff was certainly no ghetto of uneducated females. All of them had at least a two year postsecondary degree or trade school, and at least a third of the staff was male. It’s weird that I, as a progressive individual, found myself so shocked at the sight of men in the caregiver position, lovingly changing diapers and feeding infants who weren’t their own. In elementary schools, male teachers are just as common as females. Japan definitely has a ways to go in regards to gender equality, but the position of men in early childhood education is commendable. Unfortunately, this participation often doesn’t extend to their homes and fathers. I suspect the reasoning behind the strong male presence in elementary education may actually be quite conservative: educating children is too important for it to be left up to women.

All of the children at this daycare had two parents who worked fulltime, with a wide variety of incomes. My boss’s youngest daughter had graduated from this daycare, and I remember her complaining to me about the daycare system in Japan. She told me of the bureaucracy behind it, that families are required to fill out an application and prove their employment and income to city hall before qualifying. She made it sound complicated, but when I asked her how much it costs, she was confused. Once you qualify, daycare is virtually free, of course.

Not all Japanese daycares are the same, and I’ve heard that mine was definitely on the high end of the spectrum. I know the one my boyfriend taught at monthly was less academically focused, and more about babysitting. I don’t know why, and I don’t have the answers for everything. My daycare was in a city, while Colin’s was in the tiny farming town in which we lived, but there’s variety in cities too. Regardless, I think even the low end daycares have a male presence and a quality that likely exceeds the American one at which I had worked.

In Japan, childcare isn’t regarded as unskilled female labor at all. Just because I was a native speaker with a BA, I could work as an English teacher, but there was little else for me in that market. Immigration laws are incredibly strict, and it’s illegal to hire a foreigner to do a job that a Japanese person can do. Other than teaching, there’s one more job available to foreign women in Japan, and it doesn’t even require English skills.

To be continued in part two, in which I discuss sex work and being really good at caring for children.